Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats" Series: Minnesota's Louis "Doc" Cooke

April 20th, 2011

In the latest installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with author Marc Hugunin discussing the career of former Minnesota head coach Louis "Doc" Cooke. During his time at Minnesota the late Cooke won five conference and three national titles. Hugunin is the co-author of the book "Minnesota Hoops: Basketball in the North Star State".  

Jon Teitel: Cooke got the nickname "Doc" after getting his medical degree at Vermont. How did he like it, and did most people refer to him by his nickname?

Marc Hugunin: I do not know how he felt about the nickname, but I believe that he was familiarly known as "Doc" (rather than Louis, Lou, Cookie or other).

JT: He worked with Dr. James Naismith (the inventor of basketball) at the Springfield YMCA in the late-1890s, and Cooke came to Minnesota due to his YMCA work. What impact did Naismith have on Cooke, and would Cooke have ever ended up in Minnesota if the state did not have a YMCA back then?

MH: Cooke was actually in Springfield in the early 1890s before Naismith had even invented the sport. By contrast, two other prominent Minnesota sportsmen of the day were Franz Exner at Carleton College (who was Naismith's roommate at Springfield) and Ray Kaighn at Hamline College (who played in the very first "exhibition" game of basketball staged by Naismith in December 1891). Naismith was probably less influential with Cooke. I understand that College Football Hall of Fame coach Amos Alonzo Stagg was much more influential than Naismith among Cooke and other Springfield students of that day. Stagg was the charismatic leader of that earlier time. Cooke did come to Minnesota to work at the Minneapolis YMCA, so I think it is fair to say that he would not have landed here otherwise. YMCAs throughout the country knew to contact Springfield to get referred to a qualified physical director. It was a nationwide network. There was no such network among the colleges. Coaches generally were chosen from among the student body at that time.

JT: Cooke was the first basketball coach in Minnesota history and one of the first professional coaches in the country. Did the school reach out to him because he knew more about the sport than anyone else in the state, or did he reach out to the school because he thought it would be a good addition to their athletic program?

MH: It is unclear about who reached out to whom. Cooke had come all the way there to Minnesota to work at the YMCA, when suddenly it was discovered that the Y was short of funds and Cooke was cut to half-time. Initially he split his time (1/2 at the Y and 1/2 at the U), and after one year of that he moved over to the U full-time. The U was embarrassed because the Minnesota A&M Aggies were the dominant collegiate power of the time. The first intercollegiate game ever played anywhere had featured the Aggies and Hamline (Kaighn organized the game), and the Aggies won (and also won the rematch). The Aggies defeated the U in something like 11 straight games, which was the impetus for the U to get better by giving consideration to whether a professional coach could be part of the answer. However, I do not think that there was any real strategy on either side. It was just a marriage of convenience at the time.

JT: Cooke's Gopher teams went undefeated in 1902, 1903, and 1919 (winning all but two of their games by double digits in 1919 during an era when many teams scored a total of 20 points/game). Was Cooke considered one of the best coaches in the country back then, and how was he able to win so many games by such a large margin?

MH: He had good players who came from all over the upper Midwest. William Deering was his first great player. He came down from Fargo where he had been a prominent player for the Fargo Y. Michael Kiefer was a Gopher guard for eight years, as an undergrad and then as a graduate student. There were no limitations on eligibility other than being enrolled at the time. George Tuck became his first All-American. Tuck played for Minneapolis Central HS (which gave the U its closest game of the year in 1902) before joining the Gophers for the 1902-03 season. To say that Cooke was one of the best coaches as early as 1902 is to miss the point. He was one of the ONLY professional coaches. He certainly helped show that a coach could improve a team's performance (which was a point that Naismith disputed, by the way). When Naismith went to Kansas, Phog Allen told him that he wanted to be a coach. Naismith told him, "You don't coach basketball, Forrest. You just play it."

JT: In 1903 Michigan left a five-gallon water jug behind after a football game, and when the Michigan coach asked for it back AD Cooke allegedly told him, "If you want it, you'll have to win it". Was Cooke really responsible for the creation of the "Little Brown Jug" rivalry, and how important is the trophy to both schools a century later?

MH: I do not know the details, but the jug is extremely important in Minnesota, and probably less so in Michigan...unless they lose it a couple of times!

JT: Cooke was one of the original members of the national rules committee on basketball and contributed to the sport's evolution on a national stage. What rule additions/changes did he oversee, and how did he help basketball grow around the country during the start of the 20th century?

MH: I know that he served on a regional rules committee as well. College coaches from Hamline, Carleton, and the other "serious" players of the day would meet to discuss regional variations on the national rules, but I do not know if anything terribly significant came of that. I do know that Doc Meanwell at Wisconsin became much more influential throughout the upper Midwest (even in Minnesota) due to his style and strategy of ball-control philosophy. Windy Levis was an All-American at Wisconsin who came to Carleton in 1917 as a coach who taught Meanwell's style. Levis later went to Indiana where he coached All-American Everett Dean who in turn came to Carleton in 1921. Ole Olson (Ohio State) and Everett Case (North Carolina State) were also Meanwell protégés, while Dean coached Joe Hutton (Hamline), Ozzie Cowles (Dartmouth, Michigan and Minnesota), Carl Nordly (Minnesota), Oliver Nordly (UNI), and a half-dozen Minnesota High School Hall of Fame coaches. Meanwell's ball-control style became the prevailing style here, rather than anything Cooke had championed.

JT: After retiring as the Minnesota basketball coach he remained a professor of Physical Education for another decade. How did he like teaching PE, and how did students enjoy taking a class with a three-time national champion?

MH: The YMCA movement had a philosophy that physical education resulted in mental, moral, and spiritual (as well as physical) improvement, and should therefore be available to every student. However, the temptation toward elite athletics for the few was strong, and a dichotomy quickly opened. Franz Exner quickly left coaching to become a public health physician. Cooke's predecessor at the Minnesota YMCA (JP Elsom) left coaching to teach PE at Wisconsin and he wrote three books (one on student exercise, one on community education, and one about a collection of games and dances for community use). The AAU was founded as an association of YMCA physical departments, but accepted other organizations for membership. The Y quit its own organization around 1910 because it was too elite and not dedicated to the welfare of the masses (the NCAA had been founded earlier by colleges that thought the AAU was not elite enough). In this polarized world, Cooke chose to coach. I have no idea how much he liked teaching PE as opposed to coaching athletes, but many of his peers chose NOT to coach.

JT: He also coached the women's basketball and tennis teams, and even created the school's student health services. How did he enjoy coaching women, and how on earth did he help create the student health office?

MH: To be honest, I know that the Lady Gophers were a very good team until they were abolished by the U in 1908. I think they won something like 65 games and lost eight, but I had never heard that Cooke coached the women's team.

JT: He remains the winningest coach in school history. What made him such a great coach, and do you think anyone will ever break his record?

MH: Somebody will break his record. Clem Haskins won 238 games, and would easily have beaten Cooke's record except for the obvious fact that he was forced to resign in 1999. Cooke's teams never played as many as 20 games in a season. Now with an average of 30 games/year, his record is within reach, although Tubby Smith probably will not coach long enough to break it. Jim Dutcher won 190 games in 11 years. I think that what made Cooke a great coach was mostly that he was a pioneer. Most of his opponents during his first 10 years on the job did not have a real coach; teams had what was called a "captain", which was just one of the players who set the lineups and ran practices. Teams did not have a bench in those days either, just five players who usually went from start to finish. Maybe Cooke's players just practiced/worked harder, maybe he had some clever strategies; I do not really know. This is not to say he was not a great coach, as his W/L record says that he was, but what that advantage derived from I am unsure.

JT: When people look back on his career, how do you think he should be remembered the most?

MH: He was a pioneer who brought order to a chaotic environment, both administrative order as well as a strategy to a game that lacked both in the very early days. For example, Naismith's rules do not say anything about dribbling. Some people started dribbling the ball simply because they needed to keep the ball moving, but others said that you could not do that. The national rules committee took a vote in the 1920s to outlaw dribbling, but it survived by something like one vote (Doc Meanwell was the leading opponent of dribbling). There were certainly no conferences in 1900, so colleges played against high school teams. All of the contemporary practices on these points were basically settled by the time Cooke retired, so while he was not a great innovator he was a good administrator who put orderly procedures in place. Amid all of the confusion about how the game was meant to be played strategically, he worked out a methodology and enabled his players to focus on doing a few things well, rather than a lot of things poorly.

"Doc" Cooke is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Big Ten history.

Illinois: Lou Henson (1975-1996) 423-224, 12 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Indiana: Bobby Knight (1971-2000) 661-240, 24 NCAA tourneys, 11 conference titles, 3 NCAA titles, 1 NIT title, 4-time national COY, 5-time conference COY
Iowa: Tom Davis (1986-1999) 270-139, 9 NCAA tourneys, 1-time national COY, 1-time conference COY
Michigan: Johnny Orr (1968-1980) 209-113, 4 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 2-time conference COY
Michigan State: Tom Izzo (1995-present) 355-152, 13 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 4-time national COY, 2-time conference COY
Minnesota: Louis "Doc" Cooke (1897-1924) 254-142-3, 5 conference titles, 3 national titles
Northwestern: Arthur "Dutch" Lonborg (1927-1950) 236-203, 2 conference titles, 1 Helms title
Ohio State: Fred Taylor (1958-1976) 297-158, 5 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 2-time national COY
Penn State: Bruce Parkhill (1985-1995) 181-169, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Purdue: Ward "Piggy" Lambert (1916-1946) 371-152, 11 conference titles, 1 Helms title
Wisconsin: Walter "Doc" Meanwell (1911-1917, 1920-1934) 246-99, 8 conference titles, 3 Helms titles